Industry-wide traceability remains a priority for the produce industry — and for good reason.
48,000,000 people in the U.S. get foodborne illness every year, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) identifies contaminated fresh produce as one of the leading causes. Every few months it seems a produce-related illness outbreak makes its way into the news, leaving not only consumers disillusioned about eating the very products they seek to benefit their health, but produce companies scrambling to make improvements to their produce safety programs to keep companies in business.
The Heat is On: Why Supply Chain Traceability is a Hot Topic
The focus on produce traceability is not necessarily new. In fact, in 2010, leaders in the produce industry formed the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) to develop a standardized format that was machine-readable and permitted shippers and receivers to include the identity of the grower, the lot number for the product, and date it was shipped.
Overcoming a number of logistical challenges, growers and processors developed labels that could be scanned as they moved through the often-complex fresh produce supply chain. However, the upstream portion of the supply chain in foodservice and retail found implementation to be difficult and supply chain traceability essentially floundered in a state of partial implementation until 2019.
FDA was frustrated by their inability to traceback from restaurants and retail stores to the romaine lettuce, cut vegetable, and fresh-cut melon growers involved in high-profile outbreaks in 2018 and 2019 and issued nationwide consumer alerts. They advised consumers not to consume and asked stores and restaurants not to sell specific commodities; essentially shutting down those sectors of the industry until production regions could be cleared and potentially tainted product could be removed from commerce. With those actions, there has been a momentum shift and supply chain traceability has again become an industry priority.
Indeed, produce industry associations like United Fresh and the Produce Marketing Association have reinforced their efforts on PTI and are working with industry leaders and FDA to identify and develop data templates that the supply chain can employ universally use to improve traceability in the event of an outbreak. Leading retailers formed a coalition to look at factors to prevent produce outbreaks and prioritized more efficient and effective traceability as a critical element of their focus.
FDA has been outspoken that the single most important step that needs to be taken to improve their outbreak response is for the industry to adopt supply chain wide traceability. To that end, FDA recently announced their initiative of “Smarter Food Safety” built around four components with traceability leading the way. So, the shift towards electronic-based systems is beginning to happen more broadly across the industry, incorporating emerging technologies with an eye towards improving product traceback to better serve public health and also to permit more effective identification of the source of the contaminated products. These systems will enable the type of root cause analysis that will determine how and why the product became contaminated so that those lessons can be shared across the industry to prevent further occurrences.
How to Improve Your Traceability Program
Regardless of the size and scope of your company, there are things you can do to improve your traceability program and mitigate the disruptions associated with product recalls:
1. Current paper-based coding and labeling systems are outdated. Growers typically label their products with production codes. This made sense in the past, but today’s climate demands a standard product coding system or language that everyone along the supply chain can understand.
2. Educate yourself about the importance of traceability systems for your company. Leverage your trade associations and commodities groups along with the PTI website to learn about the best practices being used to implement supply chain traceability.
3. Be open to change and embrace new technologies to accomplish traceability for your company. Digital supply chain platforms have made huge strides in recent years. Food safety experts agree a technology-based solution is required to manage the vast amount of supplier relationships and international traceability needs of today’s produce industry.
4. Perform mock traceability exercises periodically to help your company find out where your gaps are so that they can be addressed in an efficient manner. Make sure to include internal stakeholders, and if feasible, involve outside distributors and even selected customers to simulate the conditions of a real world traceback situation. This will give you the best test of your communications channels and the efficacy of your traceability systems.
5. Ensure lot sizes are clearly defined and remember that limiting the size of the lot and documenting all actions associated with producing that lot can help protect your company. If something happens that implicates your products, smaller lot sizes may permit you to limit the size of a recall to only those lots that are linked to the problem thereby limiting business disruption.
6. Use “clean breaks” when passing products over equipment. A clean break is a period when harvest, packing, or processing is stopped, and the equipment is cleaned, sanitized, inspected, and tested prior to restarting again. Should an environmental pathogen, allergen intrusion, or hazardous chemical leak compromise product safety, your company can point to these clean breaks as a way to identify time points when you know the production lines were cleaned and not likely to transfer the contamination. Obviously, the more “clean breaks” you incorporate, the more you can segment your production and limit the scope of product recalls or product destruction.
Interested in learning more about traceability? Watch the webinar on your schedule!